DeKALB — Daniel Crawford’s style of playing high school basketball earned him a nickname that could just as easily apply to his style of playing football.
“In basketball, they nicknamed me ‘Chevy’ because I was physical but also smooth,” Crawford, redshirt senior tight end, said with a laugh.
‘Chevy’ caught only seven passes during his first two years at NIU before missing last season with a knee injury that put his career in jeopardy.
Crawford now leads all Mid-American Conference tight ends with 27 receptions. The only player in the conference close to him is teammate Mitchell Brinkman, redshirt junior tight end. Through eight games this season, Crawford is one of the out-of-nowhere success stories of the Huskies football team.
The nickname may encompass his playing style, but it doesn’t encapsulate all of Crawford. His punishing, yet elusive, skill set may have come naturally, but it was knowledge, selflessness and patience that had to be learned in a life and career that has been far from smooth.
Knowledge and wisdom came to Crawford early in his life as the son of a military father who moved around the country a lot. Crawford lived in Virginia on two separate occasions and South Carolina before a move overseas forced him to take a leap many kids couldn’t make.
“I lived in the Netherlands for a year,” Crawford said. “I spoke Dutch fluently. I had to translate for my mom and dad a lot, so I had to be comfortable being uncomfortable being around people and just talking to people. It gave me a chance to get to know all sorts of people from every single walk of life.”
Crawford didn’t take up football in Europe, but he did in the Quad Cities on the border of Iowa and Illinois. Originally, Crawford said his size pinned him as someone who fought for his team in the trenches as an offensive and defensive linemen.
Around the same time he picked up football, Crawford started playing basketball regularly and grew an affinity for it. Crawford took up both sports when he moved to Macomb, Michigan before high school.
While football gave him the most exposure to colleges, basketball was Crawford’s original passion, which taught him being successful means being unselfish.
“I think the things I got from playing basketball was learning from mistakes,” Crawford said. “Basketball is more of a one-man game. You can carry the team, but some people can have an ego, and I learned that you can’t have an ego if you want to be successful in anything you do.”
Crawford would have stuck with basketball had it not been for his coaches giving him a chance to play tight end in the tenth grade, which allowed him to use more of his skills along with his size. After all, great tight ends like Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates were originally basketball stand-outs.
‘Chevy’ was good enough to receive offers to play division-two college basketball. Ultimately, he decided to put his basketball career in park after taking an offer from former NIU head coach, Rod Carey. Despite having to give up basketball, NIU made the decision easy for Crawford.
“They treated me like family off the bat,” Crawford said. “A lot of times they would use two tight end sets, and that gave me a lot of opportunities early on the field.”
Crawford got playing time early, but had to test the unselfishness he had learned from his basketball career. Carey’s offensive scheme used multiple tight ends but rarely, if ever, in receiving roles. On top of this, Crawford was playing his first two seasons behind experienced tight ends like Shane Wimann and Ty Harmston.
Crawford picked up only two receptions in his first year as a Huskie in 2016 and only five the following season as a sophomore. The tight end bit his tongue, but Crawford said frustration ate away at him early in his career.
“There was a little bit of frustration, but that comes with the game,” Crawford said. “You get in when you [put] in. More of my frustration came with not being on the field more than I could because we had such great tight ends come through and I understood that getting in where I fit in was important.”
Frustrations for Crawford became small compared to how one play in spring practice last season put his career in perspective. It was the third day of practice in full pads.
“It was a run play and actually our first day outside,” Crawford said. “I was cutting off a defensive end and a running back made a cut and someone dove to make a tackle. When he dove, his leg spun into mine. My foot got caught under it and it twisted my knee at an awkward angle and I went down. I kind of knew instantly that something was wrong.”
Crawford had torn his ACL. He didn’t play a single snap of the 2018 season, let alone make any catches.
Crawford said he was never far from the game as he always attended practices and games, taking pointers and handing them out as well. Staying close to the game made it harder to know he was missing out, while also fueling his desire to come back.
“It gave me the opportunity to sit back and appreciate the little things,” Crawford said. “I would come to practice and sometimes tear up because you don’t realize what you’re missing when you’re hurt. It was tough not being out there when I was hurt, but it gave me the motivation to get better and come back quicker. I would have done anything at that moment in time.”
Crawford did recover and would have been happy going back into the program despite the low amount Carey used tight ends in skill roles. The only problem when Crawford came back was Carey was gone.
Head coach Thomas Hammock took over the program and with it, he brought on offensive coordinator Eric Eidsness from South Dakota State, a coach with an affinity for using his tight ends.
Eidsness had previously coached tight end Dallas Goedert to a 2016 nomination for the Walter Payton Award, the award to the best player in Football Championship Series football. Goedert was drafted in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles and now has 50 career receptions.
And yes, Goedert played basketball in high school too.
The arrival of Hammock, Eidsness and tight ends coach Tony Sorrentino meant a big change in roles for Crawford and his fellow tight ends.
“They reiterated very much from the beginning that they love to use tight ends,” Crawford said. “That made me want to step my game up in the offseason, working on my catching and my routes. I give all the credit to Sorrentino who gave me and all the tight ends a bunch of workouts to do to get ready for the season.”
Sorrentino himself said Crawford and Brinkman are valuable pieces to an offense because they possess a rare skill for college tight ends.
“They are playmakers, and they are big guys who can run,” Sorrentino said in an Oct. 16 Northern Star article. “They can run with the ball and get yards after the catch, which is important for tight ends. They also do a great job in the blocking game.”
The change in results for Crawford was almost immediate, picking up three catches in both the season opener Aug. 31 against Illinois State University and Sept. 7 against the University of Utah.
With his first of five receptions against Nebraska, Crawford had matched his previous two years of catches in less than three full games. Patience was proven to be one of his virtues.
Crawford said it isn’t in production that he wants to create the biggest change. The tight end said he wants to lay the foundation for future tight ends to build upon.
“I think the biggest change has been in the leadership role of things,” Crawford said. “You have people look up to you a lot more than if you weren’t doing these things. Every little thing that you do is something that you want to pass onto others. We want to create a championship culture at NIU and with everything you do has to be passed onto the next generation.”